Red Bull X-Alps athlete Jon Chambers has written a book about his experience of competing in the 2011 race. As his thoughts turn towards this year’s race, Cross Country’s Ed Ewing asked him about it
Jon, you’ve written a book about your Red Bull X-Alps experience. I have to say I’m really enjoying it. What made you write it?
Simply because I wanted to explain to people what the race is really like. You can explain the concept and you can give people anecdotes from the race, but the magnitude of the event is such that it is impossible to really give people an idea of what it means to do the X-Alps.
I did so much research into the race and so much preparation but even with all that I still didn’t really understand the race properly until about day 3. This probably comes out when you read the book! The only way to convey the experience holistically was to write it all down. It took a while!
You seem to be a natural writer. What’s your previous experience in this kind of thing?
Not much to be honest. I’ve written the occasional article and I maintain a blog of my flying and X-Alps preparation, but outside of that my writing experience is limited.
The book is a very up-close-and-personal view of the Red Bull X-Alps. Each day is a chapter and we follow you throughout the race, through every blister, every thermal, every self-defeating or negative thought. The result is it’s very intense: I found myself holding my breath at times. Did you set out to write something that pacy, or is it just because that’s how the race is?
I just wrote it as it was, nothing more or less. If anything it was hard to really do justice in words to some of the situations, so on balance the book probably underplays how intense the race is. However there is something liberating in two people focussing on such a single minded goal!
Did you leave anything out?
Nothing significant was left out of the book. I considered excluding some of the parts where I explain my strategy and tactics. I also thought twice about putting in the chapter on preparation and equipment selection.
In both cases this was because I pondered if I was giving away my secrets, but in fact, if I help other competitors then I’m happy with that – as the book’s sub-title says – it is a race against the mighty Alps rather than a race against each other.
Just to be part of the X-Alps is special. In any case, I did not win, so obviously my recipe for preparing for the race last time was not fully right!
A couple of things jump out. First, the flying is very often extreme. Beyond what any ‘normal’ day flying the Alps would throw at you – surfing the rotor curl on a big mountain at 6.30am is not common. How would you describe the flying in the X-Alps to your average pilot?
When I give talks on the X-Alps race I always explain to people that if your idea of the X-Alps is trekking in the high mountains in the morning, taking off on a long XC flight in the afternoon and then a bit more walking in the evening then you are way off the mark.
The art is being able to envision moves with a paraglider that you’d never expect or plan to do in normal flying, the flight you mention stands out, or thermaling on NE faces at 8.30am! In the X-Alps you just need to be able to take advantage of any opportunity.
Secondly, a lot of the time you are making a lot of extremely serious, fast, flying decisions while exhausted – whether that’s to make a sudden fly-on-the-wall landing to avoid going down, or to launch in a potentially dangerous spot, or to fly in the rain. And quite often you chastise yourself for making those calls afterwards. You get away with quite a few close calls. What was your closest call during the race?
Probably on day five in the Dolomites. As you know from the book I messed up a launch on a cliff edge and the consequences could have been a lot worse than they were.
What is evident in hindsight was that one error of judgement was not an isolated event; it was a series or mistakes which compounded on each other. Tiredness plays a role in this, the penalties of making a mistake in the X-Alps are immediate and physical.
In normal racing you might kick your gear around your bomb out field for a few minutes, pack up and then be picked up by the retrieve bus and replay your story over a beer with mates. But in the X-Alps you pay for it immediately. You need to get yourself back up and hike or run.
If weather isn’t on your side then you need to work even harder to get yourself back into a position to fly again. This is all even harder if you see competitors fly past you. On day five I watched a third of the field literally fly over my head due to my own errors of judgement.
What I learnt is that this requires a lot of mental strength. Remaining calm in these situations is a skill. On this front I had the benefit of my father – the calmest person to have around in any crisis. This was definitely one of the elements that made a difference for me. He was a critical component in my success. I literally could not have done it without him.
And what was your best day? The moment when it all came together and you thought ‘Yes!’?
The penultimate day, when I got the jump on Ferdy and Micheal. After being more or less neck and neck for two days we all made different decisions and mine worked. I managed to fly, legally and safely, out through the big mountains with a cloudbase at only 1,700m. Normally I would not even go flying in that area on a day like that!
As well as those moments of elation and great sporting achievement, it’s always been a criticism of the race that it pushes pilots to – and often beyond – the very limits of themselves and the sport. How do you answer the race’s critics, those who say it’s too much, that it puts the athletes in danger?
This is a discussion not limited to the X-Alps or to paragliding. Almost all high level sport is by definition pushing the boundaries of what is physically and technically possible.
The point is that most people misunderstand the discussion when we talk about risk. Risk is not a defined line in the sand that if you cross you are taking ‘too much risk’. The reality is that risk is subjective and depends on your abilities.
Part of the skill of being able to compete at this level is being able to have a healthy approach to risk. You need to understand the risks, analyse them, embrace them and make the right choice for you as a pilot.
The X-Alps is quite ‘pure’ in the sense that all the choices are your own, you are not following a predefined route and nobody is expecting you to fly, you always have a choice.
In the most extreme situations we agonised over the choices and even consulted each other. In the book I talk about this in relation to the flight from near to St Moritz.
It’s clear from your book that judging and dealing with risk – of all types – is very important in this race. Did you know that before you started? How did you train for it?
Coincidentally, I have an interest for understanding risk in the business context as well. So yes, I had put quite a bit of thought into it before I started. You can write a whole thesis on this topic, but put simply my view is that a healthy approach entails ensuring firstly that we as a team take measures to mitigate as many of the identifiable risks as possible.
Secondly for identified risks that can’t be mitigated, or that we choose to continue with, then we need to understand the consequences and be prepared for them. So for example in St Moritz I knew I was too tired to attempt the very extreme flight, so I stopped and took a power nap first to mitigate against that.
Secondly, when I took off I knew I would be landing backwards, and I knew where I needed to be to be able to do that safely. I’d understood the risk and so had planned for how I would deal for it. Hoping something won’t happen, or being blind to it, is an unhealthy approach and that is when accidents happen.
You came fifth in 2011 and are in the race again this year. What are you looking forward to about it?
The X-Alps is an adventure. I’m in it to enjoy it, every step, every flight and every day of the race.
And do you think you’re better prepared this year than last time? Why?
Yes. Firstly experience counts for something. Secondly we have an expanded team as two supporters are allowed this time. I have ace pilot Tom Payne playing a more direct role on the team this time working on communication, forecasting and strategy to compliment my Dad’s brilliant role in managing the team and keeping me physically and mentally in shape.
Finally, I think we were one of the better prepared teams last time and we will build on those successes, but we also understand where the opportunities are to do better and so we are working on those. I have great sponsors behind me too, and that helps a lot as the costs are huge if you need to self fund everything.
Chrigel Maurer has to be favourite again. Who else are the ones to watch?
Just to be in the starting line up means you have something special. I would not rule anyone out!
Any thoughts of a podium finish?
Of course. I wouldn’t be where I am now if there wasn’t a fiery competitive streak in me!
What about reaching Monaco?
I was only a day short last time, and but for a couple of mistakes it would have been possible. In all likelihood this time around it will be closer at the front and I have my sights set firmly on that raft!
Finally, give us the elevator pitch for the book (30 seconds). Why should we bother downloading Hanging in There to our iPhones and reading it on the way to work?
Because it is honest. Because it tells you what the race is really like from the inside. What it smells like. What it feels like. I’ll take you on the full 14 day adventure with all the emotional highs and lows that came with it.
You will soar with me at 3,300m across Switzerland and fight alongside me to keep control of the glider in howling valley winds in the Maurienne valley. This book will bring you as close to experiencing the X-Alps as it is possible to do without actually being in the race.
Ok, that’s about 10 seconds, but I’ve sold it already, right?
Good luck this summer!
Hanging in There is an ebook and available through Amazon. You don’t need a Kindle to read it – search for and download the Kindle App for your smartphone, table or computer. It has already topped the bestseller list in its category and received several (legitimate) five-star reviews on Amazon. The first chapter is available to view for free on Amazon. Check it out here: Hanging in There
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